San José City College Centennial: Ethnic Studies

Earlier this year, California became the first state to approve a model curriculum for Ethnic Studies in public K-12 schools and a global health crisis continued to disproportionately affect BIPOC communities across the nation. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that requires all CSU (California State University) students to take an Ethnic Studies class and Derek Chauvin was sentenced to 22.5 years in prison. 

It’s hard to stay optimistic when progress is accompanied by relentless reminders of tragedy, but equity and long-lasting change begins with education reform, and these recent developments are cause to celebrate. From the political uprisings of the 1960s to today, SJCC’s community has always worked towards greater equity. 

As we celebrate our centennial, we are proud to reflect back on our revolutionary past and to report that our Ethnic Studies Department is not only thriving but leading the way.

“We came up with courses that had never been taught before. We muddled through it, and we got it done.”

Rudy Cordova, Former SJCC Ethnic Studies Faculty
Día de los Muertos celebration at San José City College in 2019. The Jag Tones perform. Left to right: Juan Gamboa, Jesús Covarrubias, and Joaquin Covarrubias.

A Brief History of Ethnic Studies at San José City College

In the late 1960s, the Third World Liberation Front strikes rocked the Bay Area. Universities in San Francisco and Berkeley were central to the student-led movement, but they weren’t alone. They also coincided with the famous walkouts at Roosevelt Junior High School in San José, which held strong ties to the SJCC community. The cumulative momentum from all these events sparked the birth of a new and essential discipline. 

“San José City College in the 60s and 70s was actually kind of a hotbed of political activism,” said former Ethnic Studies faculty, Jesús Covarrubias. “There was this growing movement for educational reform that included a desire to develop a curriculum that reflected the diversity within the community.”

Soon after the strikes of ‘68 and ‘69, founding faculty Jack Burroughs, Thien Tran, Rudy Cordova, and Charles Murry worked tirelessly to create revolutionary courses in Native American, Asian, Mexican American, and Black Studies respectively. “We came up with courses that had never been taught before. We muddled through it, and we got it done,” Cordova said in an interview. “We did what was needed.”

In 1974 these courses came to be officially housed under a new Ethnic Studies Program. Around the same time, organizations like Umoja, MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán), the Black Student Union and the Filipino Student Association (FASA) were either founded or active.

This progress was thanks to passionate faculty and a determined student body. Student groups were constantly fighting for social justice, whether it was protesting minority firings or Governor Reagan’s EOP budget cuts. Today this revolutionary energy is being channelled into a long-lasting Ethnic Studies Department that will set the standard for community colleges everywhere.

“The development of new courses just adds new visibility and opportunities for African American Studies that haven’t existed previously.”

Dr. Khalid White, SJCC Ethnic Studies Faculty

SJCC’s Ethnic Studies Department is a Leader in California

Since its explosive beginnings, the Ethnic Studies Department at SJCC has had its ups and downs. Now, thanks to the demand caused by new state-wide Ethnic Studies requirements and alignment with movements like Stop AAPI Hate, Black Lives Matter, and family reunification efforts at the U.S.-Mexico border, there is a heightened sense of urgency, but also of possibility.

SJCC was already positioned to answer the call for Ethnic Studies. The department has been growing rapidly for the past decade. Covarrubias, who came to the department in 1997, played a key role in expanding it. He served as interim Dean of Social Sciences and Academic Senate President and was able to develop a variety of courses and advocate for significant changes. A major one — getting a two semester Mexican American History class he developed approved as satisfying the two semester U.S. History requirement.

Covarrubias has since moved to the Music Department, creating a popular new course: Chicanx/Latinx Music in the U.S. — but three new full-time faculty continue to collaborate with more senior faculty members to build an enduring Ethnic Studies Program. Two new adjunct faculty in African American (AFAM) Studies have also joined.

In the last few years, full-time faculty member, Dr. Khalid White collaborated with colleagues to create courses like The African American Male Identity, The African American Family, and African Cinema. Dr. Cindy Huynh developed and taught Ethnic Film, Women of Color in the U.S., and Asian Pacific American Culture. Together with Juan Gamboa and Andrés Rodrigez they have developed a new honors course and Intro to Critical Race & Social Justice.

“The development of new courses just adds new visibility and new opportunities for African American Studies that haven’t existed previously,” Dr. White said in an interview. “So it’s very exciting times.” 

SJCC’s Ethnic Studies Department shows no signs of slowing down, and will be rolling out five new transfer degrees this fall. All of the degrees share a title of Social Justice, but four of them offer specializations in AFAM Studies, Chicanx/Latinx Studies, Asian American Studies, and Gender Studies.

Dr. Cindy Huynh, Ethnic Studies Faculty at SJCC gives a TEDx Talk at Milpitas High School in 2019.

“Ethnic Studies is educational equity.”

Dr. Cindy Huynh, SJCC Ethnic Studies Faculty

Centennial Ethnic Studies

Ethnic Studies education is critical because it addresses structural oppression in our public education systems. It teaches the untaught history that is essential to understanding the struggles and victories as we move closer to equity today. Dr. Huynh couldn’t have summarized it better when she said, “Ethnic Studies is educational equity.” 

We see the individual impact of this structural change in the transformations of students who take Ethnic Studies courses, especially students of color. “As students personalize and contextualize their learning, it impacts self-image, self-identity, and self-esteem. Once the inner self changes, all relationships and interactions with others change as a result,” Dr. White said.

“A student once told me, ‘I came in looking for a degree but I found myself,’” Gamboa said. “Through our reading, writing and critical thinking, students often talk about finding their voice after being silenced for so long in schools.”

“There hasn’t been a time where issues of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia haven’t been relevant in our lives, even if many don’t want to acknowledge them. Ethnic Studies and the Social Justice degrees serve as a reminder that these issues need to be at the center of how we understand the world around us,” Rodríguez said.

When these are the stakes, Ethnic Studies should be considered not just a requirement, but as structurally essential. It should be rightfully recognized as a discipline equal in academic rigor to any other, and critical to the just dignity of every student.